TALLAHASSEE — Florida Cabinet members are turning up the heat on Gov. Rick Scott over the botched removal of a top state police official, with Attorney General Pam Bondi raising "serious questions" about Scott's conduct.
Bondi on Wednesday became the last of the three elected Republican Cabinet members to distance herself from the ouster last month of Gerald Bailey as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Bailey alleges that Scott and his aides meddled in law enforcement business and used strong-arm tactics to pressure him to resign.
Taking indirect aim at Scott on his preference for secrecy over transparency, Bondi said that she and the public have a right to know the truth and that she would insist that the Bailey matter be discussed "thoroughly and in the sunshine" at the next Cabinet meeting Feb. 5.
"The recent process behind the appointment of a new FDLE commissioner has raised serious questions, and those questions should be answered to ensure transparency and the public's right to know," Bondi said in a statement that held back on explicitly criticizing Scott or anyone in his administration.
The firing has mushroomed into the messiest controversy of Scott's governorship and tarnished the start of his second term. At the same time, Cabinet members, at least two of whom are expected to run for governor in 2018, are frantically trying to extricate themselves from an issue that they could have avoided.
By law, the head of the FDLE works for the governor and Cabinet. All three Cabinet members have said they did not anticipate Bailey's ouster, but not one of them publicly questioned the decision at last week's Cabinet meeting. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was the first to fault Scott's actions.
Bondi's extended silence was watched closely by the state's close-knit law enforcement network because, as the state's chief legal officer, her office works with law enforcement officials at all levels.
"I take the rule of law very seriously, especially in matters affecting the safety and security of the people of Florida," Bondi said.
Her statement came a day after Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater broke ranks with Scott and fellow Cabinet members, calling for a new search for Bailey's replacement. Rick Swearingen, a 30-year FDLE employee, was Scott's handpicked choice for the job.
"We need a better process," Atwater said. "One that's transparent."
The three Cabinet members last week were caught flat-footed when Bailey told the Times/Herald that Scott's former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, pressured him to resign by saying he had lost the confidence of the Cabinet. The Cabinet members say that wasn't true.
Antonacci refused Wednesday to talk about his role in the unfolding drama over Bailey's dismissal.
"It's a situation where I'm not prepared to say anything on or off the record,'' Antonacci said. "I have a great deal of loyalty to my legal clients.''
Scott wasn't clear about what happened, suggesting Bailey willingly resigned.
"I did not voluntarily do anything," Bailey told the Times/Herald last week. "If he said I resigned voluntarily, that is a lie. If he said that, he's being totally untruthful."
Atwater appears to be alone in his support for a do-over. Neither Scott, Bondi nor Putnam wants a new selection process, and all four officials voted last week to appoint Swearingen, who was in the Capitol on Wednesday testifying before legislators on his requests for a bigger budget.
"Our collective concern has been focused on the way Jerry Bailey's dismissal was handled, not on the way Rick Swearingen's hiring was handled," Putnam said Wednesday. "I'm not sure that this proposed cure matches the disease that we're concerned with."
After Atwater sent Scott a letter Tuesday calling for a new FDLE search, Scott fired back a written call to get rid of three other state officials who report to him and the Cabinet: Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Department of Revenue executive director Marshall Stranburg and Commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation Drew J. Breakspear.
Putnam said Scott's response to Atwater is an opening for a new discussion.
"In reading that letter, I learned things I did not know about his intentions with three Cabinet agencies,'' Putnam said. "I view that as the beginning of a conversation that will involve all four of us discussing the future of those Cabinet agencies and their leadership. That is not dictum. It is the beginning of a conversation about a decision that may come from all four of us."
Putnam proposed a series of reforms for future Cabinet hires, citing the need for "increased transparency." They include creation of a formal appointments process and candidate interviews by an appointments selection committee. Up to five finalists would be considered for any Cabinet-level vacancy.
Adding to the intrigue is that Atwater wanted one of his top deputies, Jay Etheridge, 53, to be considered for the top job at FDLE. Etheridge had a long career at FDLE, and Atwater said that while Etheridge is qualified for the job, Swearingen is, too.
"I think he'd be a good candidate. That's all," Atwater said of Etheridge.
Atwater said he opposes Scott's call to replace the other agency heads until a new process is implemented to screen applicants.
"Until I see a process, I'm not interested in reviewing names," Atwater said.
Atwater and Putnam are seen as likely candidates for governor in 2018.
A liberal advocacy group, Progress Florida, has launched an online petition drive, urging Tallahassee state prosecutor Willie Meggs to investigate Scott's "bullying" of Bailey and the Cabinet. A watchdog group, Integrity Florida, called for a federal investigation of Scott's actions.
Democratic state legislators have called for legislative hearings and a state ethics commission investigation, saying Scott's action could rise to official misconduct.
Bailey's litany of grievances, reported exclusively by the Times/Herald, includes accusations that Scott's former chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, ordered him to falsely identify an Orlando court clerk as the target of a criminal investigation.
Bailey refused. The governor's office denies Bailey's allegation.
"These are pretty serious allegations," Atwater said.
The only person who steered clear of the controversy Wednesday was Scott, who repeatedly ducked questions about it at a Tampa education event. He again suggested that Bailey left of his own free will and that as governor, he approaches hiring the same way as when he ran Columbia/HCA, the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.
"He did the right thing by stepping down," Scott said of Bailey. "Rick Swearingen is going to do a good job. What I've done, as I've done in this job, and what I did in the private sector, is keep finding new people, find new energy, new ideas. I'm going to continue to do that."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Josh Solomon and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.